This may be the Year of the Tiger, but it’s already looking very inauspicious for the species.
Last week, Chinese state media reported that over the past three months 11 Siberian tigers were starved to death in the Shenyang Forest Wild Animal Zoo in Liaoning province. Siberian tigers are one of nature’s most endangered species, and only about 300 of them are left in the wild.
According to the Nanfang Daily, the zoo was struggling financially and the tigers were starved to death after being fed nothing but chicken bones for a year. However, zoo managers denied the accusations, claiming that unspecified diseases killed off the rare animals.
Either way, the tigers had been ill-fed and ill-kept. According to one breeder the poorly-performing zoo had been trying to auction off the animals.
Some suspect a darker motive. Tiger bones are traditionally regarded as a powerful Chinese medicine – they are believed to enhance sexual potency and are also used to boost immune systems. Tiger parts can fetch a high price on the black market. Critics say the animals may have been deliberately left to die so that the corpses could be harvested for their lucrative bones.
“Tiger farms have made lots of money from breeding lots of tigers for one purpose: to sell them and their parts. Conservation is only a cover. The presence of these farms and private zoos stimulates the illegal trade of wildlife and threatens wild species,” says Hua Ning, China programme manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Indeed, an unnamed zoo official quoted by the Beijing News claimed that 40 to 50 tigers may have died at the controversial safari park since 2000 and production of tiger-bone wine for human consumption was an “open secret” in Shenyang. The Wuhan Evening News reported that bottles of the illicit tonic were routinely consumed – even by those bureaucrats responsible for animal conservation.
While the trade in tiger parts is banned, animal conservationists argue that many zoos and wildlife parks are still deliberately breeding more animals than they can afford, hoping to sell off the carcasses on the black market or, some critics say, to stockpile in case the government legalises the trade again.
Meanwhile, the Shenyang zoo has been closed since the scandal made headlines, and the local government has pledged Rmb7 million ($1 million) to help save the remaining animals.
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